Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) is one of the most intensely touching stories ever made about a young adolescent. Inspired by Truffaut’s own early life, it shows a resourceful boy growing up in Paris and apparently dashing headlong into a life of crime. Adults see him as a troublemaker. We are allowed to share some of his private moments, as when he lights a candle before a little shrine to Balzac in his bedroom. The film’s famous final shot, a zoom in to a freeze frame, shows him looking directly into the camera. He has just run away from a house of detention, and is on the beach, caught between land and water, between past and future. It is the first time he has seen the sea.
Antoine Doinel was played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who has a kind of solemn detachment, as if his heart had suffered obscure wounds long before the film began. This was the first in a long collaboration between actor and director; they returned to the character in the short film “Antoine and Collette” (1962) and three more features: “Stolen Kisses” (1968), “Bed and Board” (1970) and “Love on the Run” (1979).
The later films have their own merits, and “Stolen Kisses” is one of Truffaut’s best, but “The 400 Blows,” with all its simplicity and feeling, is in a class by itself. It was Truffaut’s first feature, and one of the founding films of the French New Wave. We sense that it was drawn directly out of Truffaut’s heart. It is dedicated to Andre Bazin, the influential French film critic who took the fatherless Truffaut under his arm at a time when the young man seemed to stand between life as a filmmaker and life in trouble.
Little is done in the film for pure effect. Everything adds to the impact of the final shot. We meet Antoine when he is in his early teens, and living with his mother and stepfather in a crowded walkup where they always seem to be squeezing out of each other’s way. The mother (Claire Maurier) is a blond who likes tight sweaters and is distracted by poverty, by her bothersome son, and by an affair with a man from work. The stepfather (Albert Remy) is a nice enough sort, easy-going, and treats the boy in a friendly fashion although he is not deeply attached to him. Both parents are away from home a lot, and neither has the patience to pay close attention to the boy: They judge him by appearances, and by the reports of others who misunderstand him.
At school, Antoine has been typecast by his teacher (Guy Decombie) as a troublemaker. His luck is not good. When a pinup calendar is being passed from hand to hand, his is the hand the teacher finds it in. Sent to stand in the corner, he makes faces for his classmates and writes a lament on the wall. The teacher orders him to decline his offending sentence, as punishment. His homework is interrupted. Rather than return to school without it, he skips. His excuse is that he was sick. After his next absence, he says his mother has died. When she turns up at his school, alive and furious, he is marked as a liar.
And yet we see him in the alcove that serves as his bedroom, deeply wrapped in the work of Balzac, whose chronicles of daily life helped to create France’s idea of itself. He loves Balzac. He loves him so well, indeed, that when he’s assigned to write an essay on an important event in his life, he describes “the death of my grandfather” in a close paraphrase of Balzac, whose words have lodged in his memory. This is seen not as homage but as plagiarism, and leads to more trouble and eventually to a downward spiral: He and a friend steal a typewriter, he gets caught trying to return it and is sent to the juvenile detention home.
The film’s most poignant moments show him set adrift by his parents and left to the mercy of social services. His parents discuss him sadly with authorities as a lost cause (“If he came home, he would only run away again”). And so he is booked in a police station, placed in a holding cell and put in a police wagon with prostitutes and thieves, to be driven through the dark streets of Paris, his face peering out through the bars like a young Dickensian hero. He has a similar expression at other times in the film, which is shot in black and white in Paris in a chill season; Antoine always has the collar of his jacket turned up against the wind.
Truffaut’s film is not a dirge or entirely a tragedy. There are moments of fun and joy (the title is an idiom meaning “raising hell”). One priceless sequence, shot looking down from above the street, shows a physical education teacher leading the boys on a jog through Paris; two by two they peel off, until the teacher is at the head of a line of only two or three boys. The happiest moment in the film comes after one of Antoine’s foolish mistakes. He lights a candle to Balzac, which sets the little cardboard shrine on fire. His parents put out the flames, but then for once their exasperation turns to forgiveness, and the whole family goes to the movies and laughs on the way home.
There is a lot of moviegoing in “The 400 Blows,” with Antoine’s solemn face turned up to the screen. We know that young Truffaut himself escaped to the movies whenever he could, and there is a shot here that he quotes later in his career. As Antoine and a friend emerge from a cinema, Antoine steals one of the lobby photos of a star. In “Day for Night” (1973), which stars Truffaut himself as a film director, there is a flashback memory to the character, as a boy, stealing down a dark street to snatch a still of “Citizen Kane” from in front of a theater.
The cinema saved Francois Truffaut’s life, he said again and again. It took a delinquent student and gave him something to love, and with the encouragement of Bazin he became a critic and then made this film by his 27th birthday. If the New Wave marks the dividing point between classic and modern cinema (and many think it does), then Truffaut is likely the most beloved of modern directors — the one whose films resonated with the deepest, richest love of moviemaking. He liked to resurrect old effects (the iris shots in “The Wild Child,” narration in many of his films) and pay tribute (“The Bride Wore Black” and “Mississippi Mermaid” owe much to his hero, Hitchcock).
Truffaut (1932-1984) died too young, of a brain tumor, at 52, but he left behind 21 films, not counting shorts and screenplays. His “Small Change” (1976) returns to the sharply remembered world of the classroom, to students younger than Doinel, and recalls the almost unbearable tension as the clock on the wall creeps toward the final bell. Even while directing a film a year, he found time to write about other films and directors, and did a classic book-length, film-by-film interview with Hitchcock.
One of his most curious, haunting films is “The Green Room” (1978), based on the Henry James story “The Altar of the Dead,” about a man and a woman who share a passion for remembering their dead loved ones. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who thinks “The Green Room” may be Truffaut’s best film, told me he thinks of it as the director’s homage to the auteur theory. That theory, created by Bazin and his disciples (Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rohmer, Malle), declared that the director was the true author of a film — not the studio, the screenwriter, the star, the genre. If the figures in the green room stand for the great directors of the past, perhaps there is a shrine there now to Truffaut. One likes to think of the ghost of Antoine Doinel lighting a candle before it.